Ricky Ponting: No smile on reaching his century © Getty Images

Ricky Ponting played the defining innings of his captaincy and one that could grow into the performance of his life. In suffocating circumstances that squeezed as stumps crept closer, Ponting grabbed the responsibility of a handful of men and saved his team with a courageous and magnificent effort.

If his display can't inspire Australia into retaining the Ashes then Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath's four-over shut-out must. Make no mistake: as hard as it is to write, this draw was a win for Australia. After spending the match miles behind they have finished it with the series still level. Ponting deserves weeks' worth of praise after surviving a torrid fortnight individually and as a team.

Since taking the captaincy from Steve Waugh he has struggled to put his signature on the side like his predecessors. That can't be said anymore. While his decision-making on and off the field has led to real and imagined trouble, Ponting showed his leadership through his batting in the most stunning way. Instead of worrying that no other batsman reached 40 - he can do that this week - Ponting stepped to 156 on a wicket playing inconsistent-bounce tricks and against a dominating attack reverse-swinging at will.

When the good balls arrived he repelled them, when the bad ones came he dispatched them. At the beginning he talked to himself as the bowlers charged, towards the end he controlled the strike to protect his eventual saviours, and he breezed singles throughout. While spectators chewed down to their elbows, Ponting breathed calmly and stood as passively as if he were on a street corner. Manchester's atmosphere was surely the most partisan in Ashes Tests.

It didn't matter that he'd been struck in the stomach by Harmison, or played and missed to Jones. No change was seen when he was beaten in flight by Giles or pulled Flintoff sweetly for an early six. Emotion was shown only on dismissal, when it seemed all the potential danger was at the other end, and after Damien Martyn was given out lbw by Steve Bucknor despite an inside edge. If punished for his protest, the top order should claim his push-ups.

Australia have denied a rift between Ponting and Shane Warne, but they now have a chasm between the captain and his batsmen. They let him down dreadfully and over the next ten days must learn to follow a brilliant example. Importantly, Ponting played patiently and purposefully without compromising his positive outlook.

It was a superb model. In the same over he could look awkward as he absorbed extra bounce and beautiful as he clipped to the legside. When the ball missed his middle he didn't get offended and try to bludgeon out of trouble, nor did he implode during periods of inaction. He saw enough of those responses at the other end.

At 42, he passed Greg Chappell's 7110 Test runs and it was already a fine innings by the 70s, but Ponting knew Australia had to have more. In bringing up his hundred the trance continued as he carefully removed his helmet to reveal a smile-less face and gave a brief lick of the lips. Five wickets were down and tea had just passed. There was much sweaty work left.

With Michael Clarke in tow there was a hint of accelerating towards an unbelievable chase, but after playing a shot a ball Clarke was undone when offering none. Jason Gillespie disappeared and Warne arrived - the pair was united in desire and teamed for 76 runs in almost 22 overs. Surviving in relative comfort, Ponting raised his 150 and was beaten next ball. Danger always lurked.

When Warne slipped to a piece of fabulous luck and reflex, Lee walked out and eyes zoomed to wait for his mistake. Wimbledon-style queuing had smothered the ground and the jubilant crowd expected a victory they could never count on waiting for Tim Henman. Ponting silenced them like Waugh had with twin centuries in 1997, but as safety approached he brought them to life by gloving Harmison to Geraint Jones.

Angry to have left the last couple with 24 deliveries to conquer, Ponting joined the spectators to watch and wait before another arm-raising, back-slapping Old-Trafford balcony scene. Sixteen years ago Australia celebrated regaining the Ashes there; today the squad cheered still being in a realistic position to keep them. Ponting has given his side a platform to push for a series victory in the final two Tests when England should have remained a dot in the distance. But first his team-mates must mirror his wonderful lead.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo